The American Façade
Illustrated by Abdul Buhari
Truman Capote was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1924. He was raised largely in Monroeville, Alabama where he met his long-time friend and fellow writer, Harper Lee. Throughout his rough childhood, he was often picked on for being too effeminate. Despite an unstable home life, his writing impressed his teachers in high school. He began working for The New Yorker as a teenager, but then began to work on his own projects. His first short stories were published in 1945, and his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, in 1948. In the late 1950s, he and Harper Lee traveled to Kansas to gather information about the recent murder of the Clutter family. This research, which involved interviewing neighbours and friends of the family, as well as the murderers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, would inspire his non-fiction book, In Cold Blood. The novel’s main concepts relate to characteristics of the American Gothic. It frames Holcomb and its locations as part of a generation both repelled and attracted by violence. The book does so by allegorizing America as a deeply disturbed place, divided and alienated by class, sexuality, and hollow notions of the meaning of success. The author focuses on 1950s America’s supposed “wholesomeness”, its evocation of the decay and degeneration and how homogeneity brings out the repressed violence.
The Clutter family being a representation of the nation, the murder attacks the wholesomeness of the 1950s America. The nation is falsely perceived as progressive (Savoy 167). The book exposes how the faith in social and material progress isn’t enough to keep the American dream alive. It is clearly impeded by the darker side of the America’s history. The Clutters are perceived as a nuclear family and the United States as an ideal nation, but both have internal issues that break apart the perfect image of the American dream. Because of this, the nation is seen as ‘unhomely’ (Punter 130). The nation is seen as ideal-like, with no troubles, but it hides deep secrets. An example is colonialism and its consequences. Colonialism is uncanny because it is both known and unknown. Most inhabitants of America disregard it because of its dark past or don’t even know how it affected the natives. People don’t wish to remember the traumatic event; it is as a result locked away and buried. The nation conceals its past, but “there is no irreducible law which has the strength to permit or to forbid such ‘returns’, however unwelcome or misshapen they might be” (Punter 136). The Clutter family reflects America, and the repressed past resurfaces through the mother, Bonnie. She is excluded by the town because of her mental issues and her failure to fill the role of a traditional housewife. The rest of the family leads productive lives, except her. Her weird behavior and her condition repulse the town in a way, but also captivate it. The citizens ignore her and subconsciously fear her, but also maintain her presence.
The novel doesn’t only focus on the deceitful wholesomeness of America; it also highlights the effect of decay and moral degeneration on its occupants. According to the urban gothic, cities cause both physical and psychological deterioration across an entire race (Wasson 132). The city becomes a site of corruption and violence. The city’s corruption is caused by dismissed problems such as class, racial and sexual issues. Dick and Perry are both influenced by the city. Dick’s family wasn’t wealthy, they were almost poor. Being poor, Dick developed a sense of inferiority which lead him to criminal behavior such as stealing and killing. He has always been very resentful towards anyone who has a better life and more money than himself, but, because of his pride, never admits that it affects him to the point of being a criminal. He doesn’t want to admit his feelings of violence, hatred and envy; he represses them, which causes him to be more troubled. His deeply repressed frustration unleashes whenever he has the opportunity. Perry also didn’t have a perfect family; his mother was native and his father was Irish. He was greatly affected by his complicated childhood which involved among other things his mother’s alcoholism. His past history also enables him slowly to become violent. Being a “cast off”, a “half-breed child living in a California orphanage run by nuns” and having more feminine characteristics also play a part in his feelings of inferiority (Capote 93). He develops into a man whose needs are never quite fulfilled, unable to break from this brutal norm he has grown in. Both killers were in a way alienated by society because of their position and status. This proves that class, racial and sexual issues aren’t external to America, but internal.
The book also emphasizes on the Gothic’s uncanny framing of small urban and suburban areas as homogenous, yearning for something else that produces violence. At the very beginning of the novel, Holcomb is described as very peaceful and unremarkable: “few Kansans had ever heard of Holcomb. [...] drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.” (Capote 5). According to the suburban Gothic, Holcomb is “disturbingly devoid of history”, which makes the murder of the Clutter family even more alarming (Wasson 136). The inhabitants of the village all have very similar and ordinary lives: they work, own farms, attend school socials, go to church, etc.
This aspect of uncanny sameness was seen in many other works such as The Seventh Victim by Mark Robson and Val Lewton. This film shows how a young woman, Mary, returns to New York City after learning about her sister’s disappearance. While searching for her sister, Jacqueline, Mary meets three men: Jacqueline's secret husband, Gregory Ward; a failed poet, Jason Hoag; and a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd. With their help, she then discovers that Jacqueline had been seeking treatment for depression caused by a satanic cult she joined called the Palladists. Throughout the film, we understand that the Palladists, a philosophical group composed of the elite citizens, created the cult because they were searching for something else to satisfy their needs for novelty. They seek new sensations that the town doesn’t provide. We also notice that the Palladists all have similar features and faces. They all blend in together, similarly to the citizens of Holcomb.
This uncanny homogeneity is what triggers their desire for violence. Soon after the massacre was announced, there is a change of behavior from the townspeople. With the non-identified killers, the townspeople start viewing each other with suspicion for the first time, locking their doors: “they believed that the murderer was among themselves.” (Capote 88). By suspecting each other, they generate an atmosphere of distrust and fear never felt before. The suburbs can be experienced as a site of oppressive normalization (Wasson 136). This quotation that appeared at the end of “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” by Harlan Ellison supports this fact: “When inward life dries up, when feeling decreases and apathy increases, when one cannot affect or even genuinely touch another person, violence flares up as a daimonic necessity for contact, a mad drive forcing touch in the most direct way possible” (Rollo May, Love and Will). As this quotation states, boredom can be an important factor of violence. The people express their repressed emotions and frustration by turning against themselves and creating a sense of danger. Because of the citizens of the village being so trapped in their everyday life, they are collectively and subconsciously craving for things to change, lusting for violence. Similarly to the Palladists in The Seventh Victim, there is a collapse of conventional moral values in Holcomb. The Clutters were no more than a sacrifice to stir up some excitement in a town where there was none. Capote suggests that if Dick and Perry hadn’t done what they did, someone else eventually would have.
Truman Capote’s book shows how Holcomb and its locations harbor a community that is both repelled and attracted by violence. Throughout the book, we realize that the novel is a critique of the 1950’s America. The Clutter family is a representation of the nation. This is why the violence targeted at an all American family is so symbolic. The murder attacks not only the town, but the idea of the American dream. The novel doesn’t only focus on the deceitful American wholesomeness; it also highlights the effect of decay and moral degeneration on its occupants, particularly the killers. Because Holcomb is a small town, the author also emphasizes the Gothic’s uncanny framing of small urban and suburban areas as homogenous, yearning for something else that produces violence.
Capote, Truman. “In Cold Blood”. New York: Vintage Books. 2012.
Punter, David. “The Uncanny.” [selections] The Routledge Companion to Gothic. Ed. Catherine Spooner, Emma McEvoy. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 129-136.
Savoy, Eric. “The Rise of the American Gothic.” Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 167-188.
The Seventh Victim (1943) d. Mark Robson. p. Val Lewton
Wasson, Sara. “Gothic Cities and Suburbs, 1880-Present.” The Gothic World. Ed. Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend. New York and London: Routledge, 2014. 132-142.